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Leading in times of crisis: 3 ways leaders can flex

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Leaders often do not choose their issues. Issues choose them.

George W. Bush wanted his presidency to focus on “education policy and domestic affairs.” As John Dickerson writes in his new book, "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency," "the word 'terrorism' came up only once, and in passing" during three presidential debates in 2000.

Eight months into his first term, Bush was dealing with the 9/11 attacks. As Dickerson notes, foreign policy so defined Bush's presidency that President Barack Obama ran against Bush's notion of an "arrogant foreign policy."

Obama, like Bush, wanted to focus on domestic policy. In September 2008, it was clear that improving things for America would require rebuilding the economy, which is just entering the Great Recession.

It is not only issues that organizational leaders face; there’s also velocity. "The urgent should not crowd out the important," Dickerson quotes former Obama aide Lisa Monaco. "But sometimes you don't get to the important. Your day is spent just trying to prioritize the urgent. Which is urgent first?"

Those quotes resonate today with most leaders because the last few months have brought waves of change. Corporate leaders in January had a rosy outlook for the economy. It was an election year, after all. 

No one in public administration was thinking about closing government and judicial offices. Who in education considered closing school doors and opening virtual windows?

Everything has changed

Today, the pandemic is not easing, as was hoped. The economy is faltering for many. And social justice is center stage. Business leaders do not get to choose one or the other; they must deal with all of them simultaneously.

So what do leaders do? The easy answer is to prioritize, but prioritize what when everything is important? Well, executives need to focus on the mission. What do they deliver to others – customers or constituents, and how can they keep on doing it?

The challenge for many executives is relevancy. How, when the world has been turned upside down, do I offer anything that people want? Or worse, are you able to purchase it? Questions like these keep executives wide awake at night. Here are three things to consider.

Focus

Examine what you offer, what you are great at, and your customers existing and emerging needs and double down on it. For example, CTI Leadership specializes in health care coaching, training and consulting. One result of the pandemic has been the closing of care and elective surgery for all non-COVID patients. The loss of income has been staggering for hospitals, the core of CTI’s business. 

Nonetheless, CTI moved into first supporting and recognizing its clients, many of whom are front-line health care workers. Next, as CEO Mo Kasti explains, the firm retooled its offerings in ways that will help it serve health care leaders and organizations now and in the future. At the same time, your business’ focus also may include exploring opportunities that are similar to what you offer now.

Agility

Urgency demands quick response. The UK-based cosmetics company Lush has released a bar of soap that lasts for 30 seconds. Hmmm, why, you may ask? Because that is the time required to wash your hands properly to mitigate the spread of coronavirus infection.

Small innovation, yes, but one that was developed quickly and with the help of a partner, Deliveroo UAE. Deliveroo distributes the bars of soap as part of foodservice deliveries, thereby expanding Lush's market reach.

Repurpose

Texas Roadhouse, a popular steak chain, responded to home quarantining by offering its specialty cuts of beef as groceries. It also provided takeout. Other restaurants have done the same. It is an imperfect solution, but it is an example of taking what you have -- good product -- and getting it to your customers in different ways.

What’s more, as CEO Kent Taylor explained in the open letter, the company did what it could to keep people on its payroll, a move that helps the company retain its best employees and position itself to compete in the “new normal.”

Focus, agility and repurposing are just for starters. Executives need to continue to evaluate their business models in response to changing conditions in difficult times. This model can also be applied to social justice. 

Just as organizations rethink what they offer, they need to consider how they provide for customers and treat their employees. How can they become more inclusive? Yes, it's the right thing to do, but it's also smart to do. The more you are like your customers, the greater understanding and responsive you can be.

Once certainty of today is that the “new normal” is still being invented. So what you do today may not be sustainable tomorrow. What is sustainable is enabling your people to help respond to changing conditions. 

No executive has all the answers. She is only as capable as her team members. Her challenge is to make it safe for people to try new things -- and to sometimes fail -- and to continue to respond in ways that enable the enterprise to move forward.

 

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us." You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.

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